Chasing the Varied Thrush

Phainopepla

The cold front that arrived late on Sunday brought high winds as well as cold temperatures. Monday morning was so chilly and so gusty that we didn’t do any birding, and when we went to our first show that night (La Reve by Cirque du Soleil) the nighttime temperature had fallen to 0°C. I had hoped that the wind would abate on Tuesday, but it was still blowing strong and not much warmer. That was the only free day of our trip, so I was hoping to do some serious birding, but we stayed inside instead – wind is my least favourite condition for birding, as it makes it hard to hear any calls or chip notes, and most birds are hunkered down themselves.

The weather improved on Wednesday, so Doran and I made plans to go to Sunset Park to look for a Varied Thrush that has been hanging around. This is a rare bird in Las Vegas in the winter, and I had heard about it from Justin Streit, who was also kind enough to send me a map showing its exact location in the park. It was most often seen foraging on the ground near a line of dense shrubs east of the pond, often feeding with doves and blackbirds.

We parked near the north end of the pond, where someone had tossed some food out for the birds – the pigeons and blackbirds were feeding in a frenzy. There were at least 200 pigeons pecking on the ground and lined up along the roof of a picnic shelter; I can’t believe eBird marked them as “not reported”, giving me a red dot when I entered them. I was happy to find both Great-tailed and Brewer’s Blackbirds among the flock, and got photos of each. Brewer’s Blackbirds are always fun to see, as I have never seen them anywhere else. I even saw a male this time, but wasn’t able to get a photo of it.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Although I’ve seen Great-tailed Grackles many times now, I still love watching them. Their vocalizations are both unique and variable, and their interactions are always interesting. They aren’t as bossy as the Common Grackles we have in Ottawa, and also unlike the Common Grackle, males and females are markedly different in appearance.

Great-tailed Grackle (female)

Great-tailed Grackle (female)

We left the pond and found the area where the Varied Thrush has been overwintering, but saw no birds feeding on the ground. We slowly walked along the edge of the shrubs and checked the thickets to no avail. There was still a good variety of birds around, including my first Black-tailed Gnatcatchers of the trip, a male Anna’s hummingbird sitting out in the open, and a couple of Northern Mockingbirds, including this one walking on the ground in front of us.

Northern Mockingbird

I was happy to find a couple of Phainopeplas as well – a gorgeous male was sitting out in the open close to the path, and I was beginning to wonder how I hadn’t been able to obtain any decent photographs of them on our last trip.

Phainopepla

Once again the Anna’s Hummingbird refused to face the sun, and the shadows made its throat feathers look black instead of red.

Anna’s Hummingbird

We saw a female Phainopepla close by, and a little further down a Northern Mockingbird was sunning itself in the middle of the thicket.

Northern Mockingbird

A few Verdin were flitting among the trees, hopping along and acting like chickadees as they peered underneath branches for food.

Verdin

Verdin

There was no sign of the Varied Thrush at the east end of the thicket, so we turned around and walked back the other way. I stopped and peered into the tangle of branches every time I saw movement, but every bird I saw turned out to be either a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a White-crowned Sparrow or a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Then something larger flew up off the ground and into the leafy branches of a tree. I caught a glimpse of a bright orange belly through my binoculars; it was the Varied Thrush! I heard it give a “chuck” note similar to that of a Hermit Thrush before it flew back down to the ground and lost itself in the thicket. I spent about 15 minutes trying to get a photo of it, and while I saw enough of the bird to confirm its ID, it never stayed in the open for very long. It was much more skittish than I had expected, and eventually I gave up all hope of trying to get a photo.

After getting the thrush Doran and I returned to the pond to check out the water birds. Once again the American Coots and Redheads swam up to me when I approached the edge, looking for food.

Redhead (female)

Redhead (male)

Several American Wigeon, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, mallards, and Canada Geese were also swimming on the pond, while about 20 Double-crested Cormorants were standing on the island. I looked for the Neotropic Cormorant that had been seen on the island around the end of January, but had no luck.

Double-crested Cormorants on the island

I did manage to pick out the lone Lesser Scaup out of the raft of Ring-necked Ducks, however.

Ring-necked Ducks

Lesser Scaup

We also saw a a Black Phoebe hunting at the edge of the pond, a Northern Rough-winged Swallow flying gracefully over the water, and an Osprey actively searching for fish much higher up. I thought it would dive down to catch one, but all of its circling and flapping and hovering proved fruitless.

Although there were plenty of domestic-type ducks and geese around, I wasn’t able to find any Ross’s Geese among the white barnyard ducks. A glossy blue-black domestic-mallard-something-hybrid was quite striking, however.

Domestic mallard hybrid

Once we were finished checking out the pond we headed for the undeveloped desert portion. Just as we were pulling into the parking lot I saw a small falcon fly in and land on the gazebo. I grabbed my binoculars and rushed outside; it was an American Kestrel. I tried to take a couple of photos but the sun was behind it, casting it in shadow. When I tried to move around it and get closer it flew off.

While watching the kestrel I was distracted by movement on the ground. The last time we had come here we had seen several Desert Cottontails, but this was too big to be a cottontail. It disappeared into some vegetation, and when it finally emerged into the other side the huge ears and black tail gave it away – it was a Black-tailed Jackrabbit, the same species I had seen last fall in Alberta. I had never seen one of these hares in Las Vegas before, and hoped to catch up with it again for a photo.

On our walk we saw more mockingbirds and Phainopeplas, a couple of White-crowned Sparrows and grackles, and heard a House Finch fly over. A couple of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers were calling in the shrubs.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

It was fairly quiet, however. We saw a few more jackrabbits and one Desert Cottontail in the southwestern corner.

Desert Cottontail

Deeper in the park we found an area where a few birds seemed to be feeding on something on the ground. A Northern Mockingbird flew down to investigate, while a line of Gambel’s Quail moved through.

Gambel’s Quail (female)

Gambel’s Quail (male)

Then something large near the top of a shrub in the distance caught my attention. It looked too big to be a bird compared to the mockingbird in the same shrub, but a glance through the binoculars confirmed it was a Greater Roadrunner! It was too far to get any decent photos.

We saw another jackrabbit, and this time I was able to get a photo. There were at least three in the park, and I wondered how I had missed them on our last trip.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

We also saw three White-tailed Antelope Squirrels, one of the most common ground squirrels in the desert around Las Vegas. The first one emerged from a small thicket and began running toward us as though looking for a handout. I only had my camera with me, and when I didn’t give the squirrel any food it ran back to the top of the small hill and watched me while the other two squirrels disappeared into the dense shrubs behind it.

White-tailed Antelope Squirrel

White-tailed Antelope Squirrels

Sunset Park

A male Anna’s Hummingbird was about the only other bird of interest.

After we finished our walk at Sunset Park we headed east to revisit Pittman Wash. I was really hoping to find some of the birds we had missed last time, namely the Pacific Wren, Bushtits and Bewick’s Wren. We saw multiple Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, Mourning Doves, a few robins, and several White-crowned Sparrows, but the White-winged Doves were nowhere to be seen. When I found an opening that looked down into the creek I tried playing the calls of the Pacific Wren. To my surprise it answered immediately! I heard the same chatter coming from across the creek, interspersed with the same annoyed “dit dit!” calls, a little thinner and drier than the Winter Wren’s – not as rich or musical in tone. It fell silent after a few moments, so I returned to the crossing and played the call again. I passed a few Black-tailed Gnatcatchers in the shrubs that had a similar call, but when I played the Pacific Wren calls again I heard the bird calling from a shrub close to the water as though it were right in front of me, though it never did pop out and do its cute little knee-bends.

It fell silent again, and we turned to leave. Then I heard it again and returned to the same spot again to try and catch a glimpse of it. I saw a Lincoln’s Sparrow out in the open, but once again the Pacific Wren remained hidden. This was the only bird of the trip that I added to my life list without ever seeing, but as it looks just like the Winter Wrens of the east, and as the calls were remarkably alike, this is the one bird from all of my trips that I felt most comfortable with adding on a heard-only basis.

A small lizard scurried out of my way, and I stopped to get a few photos. It was the first reptile of our trip, and indeed our first lizard in Las Vegas as we never did see any lizards on our last trip. The Common Side-botched Lizard is the most common lizard in the southwest, inhabiting both low-elevation deserts and mountains, though they are usually most abundant at middle elevations. They can be found on rocks, the lower branches of trees and shrubs, and in debris on the ground. I only managed a couple of photos from the top before it scurried into the brush.

Common Side-botched Lizard

We returned the way we came, instead of continuing the loop. Along the way we found a male Anna’s Hummingbird perching in the open high above the trail. On my last trip, I saw mostly female hummingbirds that I found really tough to identify; on this trip I was finding mostly males, and while they are easier to identify, none of them perched in a way that allowed the sun to light up their brilliant red throats.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

We didn’t see any hawks, falcons, Bushtits or Bewick’s Wrens on this visit, but I was happy at least that I saw the Common Side-botched Lizard and heard the Pacific Wren. This brought the number of lifers on the trip up to seven; but even without a high number of life birds, I was just thrilled to see so many birds and so much activity around Las Vegas – a far cry from the number of birds that overwinter in Ottawa.

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